POV: POLL-VAULT­ING IN MEGHA­LAYA

India Today - - IN­SIDE - By San­joy Hazarika

Over 30 years ago, I drove from Shil­long, cap­i­tal of Megha­laya, through the town of Nong­stein and then to Tura, the sec­ond largest city of that small state. I was as­sured of good road con­di­tions and a jour­ney of six or seven hours—it took me 12 hours, much of it on bumpy jun­gle tracks. There wasn’t a sin­gle sign­board to tell us we were go­ing the right way.

We did come across a sign that warned of tigers and my Bengali driver let out a trem­bling moan and prayer. When we hit a fork in the road, he asked in des­per­a­tion, “Which way?”

Go straight, I said, count­ing on luck. It turned out to be the right de­ci­sion.

A few days ago, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi vir­tu­ally flagged off the BJP’s quest for power in Megha­laya’s elec­tions early next year, while in­au­gu­rat­ing the 261-km sec­tor of high­way from Nong­stein to Tura. I’m sure it’s well marked, smooth and straight, but I worry for the mag­nif­i­cent forests and the wild an­i­mals.

It’s also likely to be a rough ride for the in­cum­bent Congress, headed by Chief Min­is­ter Mukul Sangma. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy for the BJP. For more than 30 years now, rarely has any party se­cured a ma­jor­ity in the 60-mem­ber Megha­laya assem­bly.

The state has been a test bed of coali­tion pol­i­tics since the 1980s, when two par­ties were tied in a dead heat and af­ter hours of ex­haust­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion, the chief min­is­ter­ship was de­cided by a toss of the coin. It was a unique so­lu­tion and worked well for some time. But po­lit­i­cal par­ties aren’t al­ways in­clined to stick to bar­gains.

Megha­laya also pi­o­neered peace­ful po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tion in the re­gion at the height of the Naga and Mizo in­sur­gen­cies and, to­day, its tra­di­tion of strong re­gional pol­i­tics is well es­tab­lished. That is why the BJP stitched an al­liance with the late Purno Sangma’s Na­tional Peo­ple’s Party, now run by his son and suc­ces­sor as MP, Con­rad. Given the his­tory of small in­dige­nous par­ties, which hold the bal­ance of power, the BJP is likely to try and strengthen the al­liance de­spite the urge to go it alone, bank­ing on Mr Modi’s charisma.

Mr Modi is a pop­u­lar man in the re­gion, de­spite the dent in his party’s for­tunes in his home state and the Congress’s sur­pris­ingly ro­bust per­for­mance there. Events in Gu­jarat will raise hopes that good gov­er­nance will emerge as a cam­paign pri­or­ity in Megha­laya too: the state has among the worst health indices in the coun­try; do­mes­tic abuse is trou­blingly high de­spite the ma­tri­lin­eal sys­tem; poverty and vul­ner­a­bil­ity re­main huge chal­lenges.

Ear­lier this year, the state gov­ern­ment pi­o­neered a so­cial au­dit scheme, en­gag­ing pro­fes­sion­als to as­sess whether gov­ern­ment pro­grammes were reach­ing tar­geted house­holds. This ini­tia­tive (no other state has it) may help Dr Sangma in the po­lit­i­cal bat­tle of his life.

Sangma came to power nearly five years ago, out­ma­noeu­vring his party col­league, the crafty D.D. La­pang, a vet­eran chief min­is­ter. He has sur­vived a tur­bu­lent bout in of­fice de­spite stiff in­ner-party op­po­si­tion, al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and worse—of be­ing a non-tribal in a state run by tribal power—and spo­radic move­ments aimed at top­pling his gov­ern­ment on the is­sue of In­ner Line Per­mits (ILPs) for non-tribal peo­ple.

The ‘anti-out­sider’ vi­o­lence and dis­place­ment of the early 1980s is largely a thing of the past, but it still sim­mers, as the pro-ILP ag­i­ta­tion showed. The BJP faces a chal­lenge in over­com­ing its im­age as a party of the ‘main­land’. The beef con­tro­versy and at­tacks by cow vig­i­lantes in other parts of the coun­try had the party and its al­lies on the de­fen­sive, try­ing to re­as­sure the peo­ple of Megha­laya that their meat-eat­ing pro­cliv­i­ties and Christian be­liefs (nearly 60 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is Christian) would not be threat­ened.

The ‘in­sider-out­sider’ syn­drome, which has long and deeply trou­bled Megha­laya and other states of the north­east, could be as sig­nif­i­cant a fac­tor as anti-in­cum­bency and the state’s tra­di­tion of forc­ing coali­tions. De­spite the new high­way, the path ahead for all par­ties prom­ises to be as bumpy as the old Nong­stein-Tura road.

The writer is in­ter­na­tional di­rec­tor of the Com­mon­wealth Hu­man Rights Ini­tia­tive

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